Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Connoisseur and the Addict

By Dan Apczynski

Among the many things that caught my attention in Tom Bissell’s excellent recap-confessional, “Video Games: The Addiction,” I was surprised to find that what haunted me most was neither the cocaine abuse nor the revelation that Mr. Bissell made his way through Liberty City more than once (don’t get me wrong; cousin Niko and I had our share of good times, but one adventure was enough). It wasn’t even the fact that Bissell and I shared so much of our experiences in lockstep—skipping GTA III, for instance, and the need to cope with the queer alienation of uprooting ones life and moving to unfamiliar territory. Rather, it was this nugget from the top of the article that resonated most deeply:
Once upon a time I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down "only" a thousand words.
Elegiac, vaguely regretful. I felt a familiar taste creeping around the edges. He continues:
These days I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction—excepting those I was also reviewing—in the last year . . . These days I still manage to write, but the times I am able to do so for more than three sustained hours have the temporal periodicity of comets with near-earth trajectories.
At this point, I’m no longer reading a story about Mr. Bissell; Mr. Bissell is reciting a story about me. The link is ultimately made between our inability to focus and our obsession with video games, but of course, it’s already clear where we’re both heading. [If you’re reading this Tom, no worries: I have the absolute fullest grasp on my sanity; use of first-person plural is for effect only.]

So what is the role of video games in a healthy life? If truly great gaming experiences are to be digested on par with literature (a case I’m prepared to make), how does one draw the line between the connoisseur and the junkie?

Of Tasks and Leisure
It’s not news to me that I no longer play music or write for the sheer enjoyment of playing music or writing. Reliving Bissell’s experiences with Vice City and GTA IV, I had to give myself a quick self-exam—have these important activities fallen by the wayside in favor of video games?

The simple truth is that there’s only so much time in a day, and choices must be made. On an absolutely personal level, there’s a certain amount of nesting and household maintenance that make up a necessarily large portion of my waking hours. My fiancée and I have a wedding to plan, and if I’m going to lose five pounds by the end of July, I either need to spend time exercising or feeling guilty (the latter seems to take up more time than the former). I spend my 9–5 working as a music editor for a guitar magazine—which, in the midst of an already busy schedule, means that reading, writing, and playing music “for fun” tend to fall to the bottom of the list. But sanity is also important, and so there is also the need to do the things one likes to do. Time must be made for dining out, for watching TV on the couch, for cooing audibly at one’s pet guinea pigs (truly, you should try it). And I do love the shit out of playing video games.

So the line in the sand is drawn: there are activities that are task-oriented, and there are activities that are fun. On one hand, exercise, practice, cleaning, wedding plans, work—all important things, fun in their own way but not exactly relaxing. On the other hand, quality time with my fiancée and our friends, playing gigs and developing musically, and yes, of course, video games—personally enriching activities with a different sort of importance, and the reason we do all of that other stuff.

The Connoisseur and the Addict
For the uninitiated (or just plain uninterested), video games can seem like an abject waste of time. If she’s reading this, the love of my life is nodding in the affirmative right now—to her, games are a cacophony of gunfire, stiff dialogue, and the bemused squeaking of impossibly cheerful and large-breasted women (I’m looking at you, Vanille).

Bissell compares video games to drugs: “Video games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude and make me feel good and bad in equal measure.” The likening smacks familiar to haters and hardcore alike, but the reality of gaming (as Bissell goes on to indicate) isn’t quite so nefarious. The drug comparison is easy enough to put in one’s pipe, but in the interest of establishing a contrasting perspective, let’s supplant cocaine with golf. The world certainly has its share of golf widows, after all, and while the sport can be taken to such extremes, it’d be a stretch to say that golf is anything but a reasonably healthy thing to be preoccupied with. After all: The fresh air! The exercise! The communal, the traditional, the meditative, the fostering of discipline and the respite from the everyday—all these things are available to the golfer (at all levels, from par-three hobbyist to wayward, sex-addled professional). As Bissell points out, video games have the power to enrich—fresh air and exercise notwithstanding, all that can be said of golf can, in one way or another, be said of gaming, which also carries a host of other benefits all its own.

All this to say that when it comes to virtual addiction, it’s not in the game but in the gamer. It is the bottomless pit that the gaming addict tries desperately to fill, not the thing he or she pours into it. Bissell, I assume, would not disagree that his dark journey is not the necessary end of a healthy gaming appetite. A good gaming experience need not be interrupted by the judging light of one’s obligations, but rather, taken as a gift—a reward for obligations fulfilled and an enriching experience all its own.


Tim Mackie said...

The use of the word "addiction" regarding compulsions such as excessive gambling, shopping, and video gaming bugs me because there is no physiological cause for those compulsions (that I'm aware of, anyway). Whenever the word "addiction" is used, the comparison is inevitably made to drugs, but drugs are different in that your body begins to need them. I probably play more video games than I should, but I would be able to stop cold turkey if necessary. However, like you were saying in here, I wouldn't want to; games are quite fulfilling in their own right.

Tiffany said...

Hey, it's the love of your life here. Sure, I do tend to mock some of the content of the games you play, and who am I to even do that when I freakin' LOVE and I mean LOVE any of the Real Housewives series. My main gripe with the gaming is honestly contained to the reasons you've so eloquently outlined in this post. It's hard to see someone I know who is so very talented and passionate about so many things get "trapped" by one interest. That's truly all it is. It's no different than how I can get trapped by work. I just want there to be time to write music, read books, and most importantly, coo at guinea pigs.

Jay said...

Tiffany, I posted this on my wife's facebook page: Insignificant Other

I implore you to watch it with your man and try to empathize with our plight of being so easily lulled into a transcendental state of pixelated bliss.